The University of Arizona has taken the lead in joining the growing number of U.S. regions planning their futures around water-based economies by creating water technology innovation clusters.
Water clusters build networks of universities, governments and businesses that serve as catalysts for economic development and protection one of the world’s most precious resources.
In the University's latest show of support for a regional water cluster, the College of Engineering on Jan. 31 hosted a workshop featuring keynote speaker Sally Gutierrez, the Environmental Protection Agency's new director of the highly successful cluster "Confluence" in Cincinnati, Ohio.
"There is no doubt in my mind that you have the assets here in Arizona," said Gutierrez, who was the director for eight years of the EPA’s National Risk Management Research Laboratory in Cincinnati, which employs more than 400 environmental and chemical engineers, chemists, microbiologists, economists, hydrologists and other staff focused on water.
"You have a great infrastructure," she said. "Many programs already exist at the University of Arizona and in the surrounding communities."
The UA, home to several research centers and institutes dedicated to water quality and environmental sustainability and teeming with water and environmental experts, already is a global leader in climate, environmental, water and energy sustainability research.
The region has a head start in establishing a water cluster, Gutierrez said, thanks to the research and lab resources at the University coupled with abundant business incubator and development resources, innovative technology companies, water utilities doing a good job of ramping up conservation programs, forward-thinking state policymakers, and a green Tucson infrastructure.
The UA already is collaborating with Pima County on a future water campus, an integral part of the county’s investment in the largest project it has ever undertaken: the Regional Optimization Master Plan, which will enable the Pima County Regional Wastewater Reclamation Department to meet regulatory requirements while protecting the county's environment and water supplies for decades to come.
"Pima County's collaboration with the University will benefit our community by joining UA's world-class researchers with the daily operations of a state-of-the-art wastewater reclamation facility," said Jackson Jenkins, director of the Pima County Regional Wastewater Reclamation Department.
The partnership between the UA and Pima County will help bring together water and energy experts, the public, government and private corporations to work on technology development and education in water and energy sustainability.
"With facilities that can be created at such water campuses, research and testing can happen in a real live wastewater treatment facility, and researchers and companies will be able to get proof that their ideas work," said Glenn Schrader, College of Engineering associate dean of research and graduate education, whose office organized the workshop with EPA.
In addition to collaborating on the Water Campus, Schrader added, "We're highly motivated to form a regional water cluster because water management requires the involvement of infrastructure, policy planning, education and more, and because water clusters increase the opportunities to move beyond research and development to demonstration, deployment and education."
U.S. water clusters exist, or are being formed, not only in Ohio but also in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Each water cluster has immediate potential for injecting $50 to $100 million into local economies, Gutierrez told Pima County water officials, industry partners, business incubators, community activists, UA researchers, administrators and faculty attending the workshop.
Gutierrez indicated that that the EPA has a goal of fostering a network of regional water clusters and welcomes the start-up efforts in Tucson. She shared the tri-state water cluster model under way in southwest Ohio, northern Kentucky and southeast Indiana. But in a nod to the uniqueness of the arid Southwest, she acknowledged that each region has its own set of needs, opportunities and challenges and suggested that the Southwest look to Israel for inspiration.
Tucson reuses about 9 percent of its water, impressive considering that only 1 percent is reused nationally. In contrast, however, Israel reuses 75 percent of its water. Similarly, Israel uses drip irrigation on 90 percent of its cropland, while Arizona, with nearly 70 percent of its water use in agriculture, uses subsurface irrigation on less than 3 percent of it cropland.
"When you look at what Israel has been able to accomplish, you see the exciting opportunities for innovation," said Gutierrez.
"We are far from winning the war of demand on our water supply throughout the world," she said, noting that an increasingly warm climate, population growth and waste continue to drain the world's finite reserve of fresh water. In fact, in a world where more than 80 percent of the wastewater is neither collected nor treated, global food demand – and the water to produce it – is expected to rise 70 percent by 2050, according to the United Nations.
Discussions on establishing a water cluster in the Tucson area will continue in the near future, Schrader said, not just with local governments, utilities and corporations, but also with water cluster representatives in Australia, the Middle East and Israel.
Said Schrader: "By marshaling the University's immense brain power and facilitating investment in water sector research, we can distinguish our region's water management systems while also spurring the development of technologies that can be exported to other water-challenged areas around the world."